Archive for 18 November 2010

Barriers to Information Freedom: Barriers to Trade

18 November 2010

Earlier this week, Google’s public policy shop released a white paper arguing for obstructions to the global free flow of information to be seen as barriers to free trade. The paper came out on the deadline for comments on the Commerce Department’s notice of inquiry on this subject (though apparently the deadline was extended for a few extra weeks– there’s still time!), and took on all the big questions sought by Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force:  How are governments restricting the internet? What is the impact of these restrictions?  What can we do about it? The white paper is a good read, but 25 pages, so, forthwith, a summary and some thoughts:

The white paper outlines the tremendous economic impact and potential of the internet (1.7 billion users! [i.e.: customers] Global markets for local companies!), and then spends considerable time describing the ways that “more than 40″ governments disrupt the free flow of information on the internet, identifying four “common characteristics” of the restrictions.  First, restrictive governments will often impose rules or regulations on online service providers without making those rules clear and publicly available.  Second, governments will block entire platforms or services based on individual pieces of content or the actions of a small number of users. Third, foreign companies are frequently disadvantaged in favor of local companies. And fourth, restrictive governments apply their laws arbitrarily and haphazardly, targeting some violators while ignoring others.

These restrictions have real impacts on trade and economic growth, as the next section of the paper argues. With restrictions, companies have a harder time reaching their customers, and even when they do, the degradation of their service lowers its value. When restrictions target “intermediary” companies– search engines, blogging platforms, cloud-based services– the effects are magnified, as they impact not just the blocked service, but other businesses– both local and foreign– that rely on the service for their own business. The ultimate effects of restrictions are lowered revenues for internet companies and others who depend on the blocked services, a high degree of uncertainty that makes it impossible for firms to plan their work, and unfair advantages given– often intentionally– to local, unrestricted businesses.

The white paper suggests three main steps for policymakers to combat barriers to free information/trade on the internet.  First, they must call attention to the restrictions imposed by foreign governments and the effects they have on the global economy. Second, policymakers must take action in instances where restrictions on the free flow of information online are in violation of existing international trade rules. The paper puts particular emphasis on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which extends the WTO’s jurisdiction over goods to services, including information and communications services.  

Third, they must protect free flows of information in future international trade rules by establishing global openness as the default position, and mandating stronger transparency rules. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement currently in negotiation already includes language that acknowledges the importance of information freedom in facilitating trade and restricts barriers to any information flow. The paper mentions other trade forums that could be ripe for introducing these ideas, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the Doha Round of negotiations under the WTO, should it move forward.


This white paper is a valuable contribution to a side of the “internet freedom” conversation that has gotten less attention this year.  In her January speech on Internet Freedom, Secretary Clinton made clear that the free flow of information was an economic issue, as well as a strategic issue and a human rights issue. Most discussion, however, has centered on a universal right of access to information, described by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  While compelling and stirringly idealistic (I’ve defended this right on this blog many times before), arguments based on issues of human rights often don’t gain the purchase in the policy world that economic arguments do.  If we’re going to knock down barriers to information freedom– for the sake of human rights, economic interests, Western values, or whatever else– taking the economic approach is likely to be the most effective.

Related to white paper, the Center for Democracy and Technology just published a really interesting blog post about fees charged to Chinese universities by their government for accessing “international data.” Any time a student at a major university in China accesses a news or information portal hosted in another country, they pay a tax. As Google’s paper mentions, restrictions on information freedom have the effect– intentionally, in China’s case– of creating a fragmented internet: individual “intranets” rather than a single, global network. The sort of “data protectionism” that CDT describes inevitably deepens national divides, making the world less global and interconnected, and preserves the disparities in information access that idealists once hoped the internet could tear down. It’s troubling to watch these barriers erected and strengthened.

Back in August, we held an event here at NDN on the global free flow of information, and were fortunate to host Anita Ramasastry, co-chair of the “Free Flow of Information on the Internet” working group in the Commerce Department’s Internet Policy Task Force; she spent much of her talk discussing the trade approach to information freedom.  You can read a summary and watch a video of the event here.